What is it? And what should we do about it?
Meet Shots. Shots is a 17m old American Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Shots can be a little shy, but is overall a cool, calm and collected dude. Well socialised and with a beautiful play style with other dogs and people; Shots unfortunately got attacked by 3 dogs in quick succession a couple of months ago. As a result he has become stressed and defensive at the sight of other dogs, reacting by barking and lunging on leash in an attempt to protect himself from his perceived threats. More recently as his fear and stress levels have gotten worse, Shots has accidentally redirected onto his mum during their walks. Below is a short explanation of why this happens, and what we're planning on doing about it...
What is it?
Redirected Aggression or RA is always caused by a state of over arousal - this could be excitement, frustration or stress. When an emotionally aroused dog is interrupted or is unable to reach their intended target for their aggressive outburst, the dog may redirect that response on to the source of the interference and lash out at people (even their handlers) or other dogs (including dogs they know and love). The longer the dog is in the state of over arousal, the more likely redirected aggression will happen.
When two dogs from the same household who are usually perfectly good friends are running and barking up and down the fence line at a person/dog walking past when all of a sudden they turn on each other and begin fighting.
Or when two dogs are fighting and when the intervening human grabs onto a collar the dog whips around and bites them. Or when while walking your dog on lead they get so frustrated at not being able to go and meet that dog over there that they jump up and nip you instead.
What can we do?
Change the environment: environmental management offers the scaffolding required to allow training to take place. Depending on the situation, management strategies can be temporary or permanent. Distance is always our friend - distancing a dog from their target reduces their level of arousal and decreases the likelihood of redirected (or real) aggression in the first place. If you have dogs that are fence fighting, prevent access to the area where the fights occur. Altering the environment will alter their behaviour.
Provide appropriate outlets: redirection is most common in dogs that are naturally quite intense. The more a dog is wound up, the more likely it is to redirect. Ensuring the dog has the appropriate amount of exercise, mental stimulation and outlets for their natural drives (think border collies NEEDING to herd or a jack russell to chase) will go a long way in reducing their redirecting behaviour naturally.
Prevention is better than cure: Avoid putting your dog in any situations where they’re likely to redirect. If you see their arousal building, interrupt the situation before it escalates.
Teach an alternative behaviour: Find a behaviour that is incompatible with their current behaviour. For example, you cant also be lunging at a dog on leash if youre staring lovingly at your owner. Ensure the alternate behaviour is worth their time by reinforcing it so highly that it's a no brainer which option they should choose. If your dog is fixating on other dogs when on leash, master loose leash walking and teach a focus behaviour which encourages them to make eye contact with you instead. If they’re getting worked up at the gate or window, teach them a bomb proof recall then offer them something else to do.
Keep em busy: remember the old saying “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”. Keep them busy with reward-based training in situations that would usually spark their arousal.
What not to do?
Punishments and reprimands are counter-productive. At best, they may suppress the problem, but consider this a ticking time bomb. Training a more relaxed response to the environmental triggers will reduce the issue overtime naturally, and provide long term behavioural stability.
Redirected aggression is an uncontrollable emotional response and it is completely normal. If your dog redirects onto you, know that it’s not personal, nor does it mean that your dog is aggressive to people. What it does mean is that your dog needs some help in certain situations and that you need to work with them to manage/resolve their emotional responses. No one likes to lose their cool, including your dog.